The Fair Fight

Many arguments are pointless; they start out over something small then escalate beyond proportion. Here’s how to keep conflict from damaging all.

Happy couples fight in different ways: Even about retirement

Big decisions bring out different styles of marital conflict


Big decisions bring out who we are and how we deal with the world.  That’s true for individual personality, but it works for couples as well.

One big life decision is where to go and what to do when the home where you’ve lived in and raised your children is just too much to care for.  When I’ve thought about that in the past, I guess I’d always thought about it from the perspective an adult child.  What would I do if my parents or in-laws couldn’t manage their house any more and weren’t ready to move?  I’ve seen family struggle with that, dealing with Alzheimer’s or just with the normal frailty and slowing of healthy aging.

I saw it as a generational issue and, like most people, hoped it was one I wouldn’t have to deal with.

But I’d never really thought about it as a marital issue within the couple itself.  But that’s what this piece is about: how the way two long-married and successful couples have always dealt with conflict plays out in this decision. 

One couple owned a decent four bedroom Colonial that had been filled to overflowing when all five kids were home.  It was easy to take care of, the husband had always done the maintenance, and it was still in decent shape.  The husband swore he’d never move into a condo or apartment (he’d always lived in a single family home, even growing up in the Bronx).  But he joked that he knew his wife would have the house sold before his corpse was cold and be off to an apartment or condo.  So it came as a complete shock to all of their kids when they announced that they were moving.  He had been ill for a while and his wife had taken on all the heavy shoveling, maintenance and housework.  He decided that the house was a burden to her.  They spent two months shopping through retirement communities and condos in a less expensive and easier-to-drive area of the state (the excellent insurance policies of Massachusetts made it impossible for them to leave).  They bought their best compromise, everyone came up and cleaned out the house and readied it for market, and they sold it in three days – the month before the Boston real estate market tanked.  The whole process whizzed by in a four month blur.

The other couple had always been much more planful.  As long as I can remember, she had talked about selling the house when they got older and moving close by in an easy to upkeep house.  She even told me what street it was going to be one – a nice lane of little ranches a few blocks from the old house.  For years (maybe ten now?), they’ve talked to real estate agents, looked at houses, visited retirement communities, and checked out condos back in their home states.  They even put down deposits on two of them.  Unlike the first couple, whose parents had died young, they had faced long years worrying about an older mother living alone with failing health.  They swore it would never happen to them and they wouldn’t burden their children.  They saved.  I knew he grumbled about it, but he never said anything that suggested to me that wasn’t what was going to happen.  When the first couple moved (so fast and so easily), it seemed like the time to for them to go, too.  But they dawdled, delayed, and, by the time they got organized, six months had passed, real estate collapsed, and the house was pulled from the market after a year of showing and no offers.

This is where the differences in marital style come in. 

John Gottman – the father of observational research on couples – says there are at least three very different ways that happy couples deal with conflict.  (As he says, if you think there’s only one, you read too many popular psychology articles.)

  • Validating couples listen to each other, acknowledge each other’s feelings and ideas, and rationally work towards a common goal
  • Volatile couples tend to yell.  They get emotional – both very loving and very conflictual.  They don’t always listen.  They make up really well. 
  • Avoidant couples – well, they avoid conflict.   They try to avoid areas where they disagree, but, when it comes down to it, they each do the best they can to deal with wherever they are, and both strongly agree that their disagreement isn’t that important compared to the benefits of being together.

It would be really nice if everyone could clearly articulate what they feel about all the strong emotional issues involved in family life. But they can’t.  And it would be great if everyone listened to and validated those feelings.  But everyone doesn’t.  And it would be paradise itself if, after all were said, done, and understood, there was a great compromise where everyone’s needs were met. 

But I haven’t seen that for retirement.

I described the first couple as moving quickly and easily – which they did.  But that doesn’t mean they didn’t fight about it.  They’re volatile.  For 50 years they’ve been happily volatile.  They only rarely give in to Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that will kill a relationship (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling).  Okay, maybe a bit on the criticism.  But they are honest with each other, they’re both comfortable with conflict, they love each other a lot, and they make up really well. 

They both wanted to move, and he really wanted his wife to be comfortable and happy after he died (no one seems to plan for the wife dying first).  One retirement community they looked at was head and shoulders above the other, it was in the right area, and it was within their price range.  He was ready to go.  But she wasn’t.  She’d come up with reasons, he’d make a logical argument against it.  She’d concede that, but come up with another argument.  The bottom line was simple: she liked the place, but couldn’t see herself there the rest of her life.  It was a great resort, but not a great home.  It wasn’t for her.  When she finally figured that out and communicated it, they found another place that fit them both.  In fact, it fits them so well, it feels like they’d been there forever.  As long as they can drive (or the senior center continues to run shuttle busses and their daughter can help with shopping), this was a good decision for them.

The strength of a volatile marriage is that it is exciting.  As long as that excitement doesn’t move into bitter conflict, and as long as people do eventually listen and compromise, conflict can be resolved.  Its danger is that when you’re really mad, it’s easy to let the four horsemen in. Criticism moves from specific to global and from behavior to personal.  Sarcasm can become contempt.  Defensiveness trumps communication.  And bitter arguments that you feel you can’t win result in withdrawal and stonewalling. 

The second couple have quiet fights.  They hate conflict.  They are from New England and think of my New Yorker emotionalism as just a shade this side of insanity.  To their minds, my impassioned intellectual argument is explosive anger (but that’s a different blog.)  For almost sixty years, they have agreed that they love each other, that they are fundamentally compatible, that they share values, and that any conflict they have is just a small thing they can work through.

Except when it comes to major things.  The strength of avoidance is that you never have to fight.  You minimize.  You ignore.  You just do something else.  Remember the line from My Fair Lady, when Rex Harrison rages that he will never let a woman in his life because, “make a plan and you will find, that she has something else in mind, and so rather than do either you do something else that neither likes at all”?  Avoider.  If the couple really does share close values and both are willing to rub along, this can work out great for many long and happy years.  The danger of avoidance as a conflict management strategy is that there are times when the issue is so important to both people, that they can’t minimize it.  At that point, you need to pull out your couple toolbox and use other conflict management tools: listening, identifying and articulating your real, core issues (not just the surface ones that are true, but not important), deciding what’s really important, and compromising.   Sometimes skills are adequate for that task. Sometimes they’re not.

This couple is now at the point where the wife has decided where they’re going and is ready to write that really large and permanent check.  She is once more putting her house on the market.  She’s giving away furniture, books, and the wonderful clutter that fills a home after 40 years and a lifetime of memories.  He says he won’t go.  They both have real needs and real differences in what they want for their retirement.  She may well live another 20 years.  He almost certainly won’t.  They love each other.  But avoidance as a strategy is no longer going to work.  Because when it comes right down to it, a decision has to be made.  So honesty, insight, communication, and praying for a solution that will be workable for both of them will have to do. 

I’m hoping it does.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

The Fair Fight